David Unsworth was heartened by Everton's 'brave' performance after a slender 1-0 defeat to Hartlepool United at Victoria Park in the Papa John's Trophy on Tuesday night.
The result secured Hartlepool's progress to the knockout stages at the expense of the young Blues, as Matty Daly's 71st-minute winner proved the difference.
But Everton impressed for large periods of the contest and were unlucky not to take the game to penalties when Stanley Mills hit the crossbar after the break and Rhys Hughes' goalbound strike was superbly saved in the dying seconds.
Unsworth said: "We had a great game against Morecambe in this competition. I was disappointed with how we played against Carlisle but tonight, there’s disappointment in the result but in terms of performance, we didn’t’ half play well. We didn’t deserve to lose at all. We dominated possession, we were terrific on the ball and were brave.
"We had our two chances in the second half, hitting the bar through Stan, and it was just unlucky. And then their keeper has pulled off an absolute worldy save in the last minute.
"We perhaps didn’t have the physicality in the final third to bully their three strong centre-halves but that’s why we play in this tournament. These boys are 17, 18 years of age and they are developing that."
The sides entered their final group game level on points and with all to play for. Antony Sweeney was taking charge of League Two Hartlepool for the first time after previous manager Dave Challinor resigned following a 5-0 defeat to Leyton Orient on Saturday.
There was an electric start with the young Toffees looking to capitalise on any uncertainty in the home side's backline and inside the first minute Lewis Dobbin threaded a nicely-weighted ball to Tom Cannon, whose shot from the right side of the box went just over the bar.
Hartlepool had a good chance on four minutes when Mark Shelton's corner was headed over by Reagan Ogle. After a fast beginning from both sets of players the tempo of the game progressively eased, with Hartlepool looking to hurt Unsworth’s team from set-pieces.
Everton were playing the neater football, looking to build up their play from the back and work openings to punch the ball into Dobbin, the visitors' most dangerous player in the opening half.
Both teams failed to create any real clear-cut chances prior to the interval and the game steadily growing cagier raised the prospect of Hartlepool contesting a third straight penalty shootout in the competition.
Everton had the first clear opening of the game on 57 minutes after half-time substitute Mills found himself one-on-one with keeper Jonathan Mitchell following a brilliant through ball from Hughes (pictured). Mills tried to lift the ball over Mitchell using the bounce from the pass but the effort kissed the bar.
Hartlepool reacted straight away, striker Joe Grey shooting through the legs of Harry Tyrer in Everton's goal only for captain Ryan Astley to bail out his side with a clearance off the line.
The home side eventually broke the deadlock on 71 minutes, with substitute Daly making an instant impact. Midfielder Tom Crawford played in Will Goodwin, whose shot was saved impressively by Tyrer. Daly was first to the rebound, however, and used his right foot to slot the ball into the net.
Everton midfielder Hughes nearly took the game to penalties in the 90th minute but his strike from 25 yards was smartly saved by Mitchell, with the ball heading for the keeper's bottom left corner.
Daly's goal, then, proved decisive, eliminating Everton from the tournament and securing progress for the Football League club.
Unsworth was also full of praise for Blues keeper Tyrer after the boyhood Evertonian's solid display between the sticks.
The boss added: "He trains with the First Team every day. He’s a great lad and is probably the best goalkeeper we’ve had at this level alongside Joao (Virginia). Harry's got a fine career ahead of him."